in: Reviews

January 30, 2011

Ligeti Maligned, Steinbacher Exhilarating

by

It seems quite clear to me that of the arts — music, paintings, poetry — the one which should absorb our interest more than any other is contemporary art, the work which is being done here and now. The Mirror, the Echo, the Conscience, even the Spectre of today, we cannot deny it. Whether we like it or not, it is part of ourselves and to disregard it is to miss an integral experience of our lives.

The great work of the past is there, solid, admirable, inevitable, but to attend at the creation of the art of our time, to encourage and to sympathize — and with luck to take part in it— that is the unique and privileged opportunity that comes of being born at a certain time and in a certain place.

— Peter Pears

On Friday afternoon, January 28, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi performed works by Ligeti, Mozart and Dvorák. I attended this concert (but could not go on opening night) specifically to experience the first piece, Ligeti’s Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe. It is one of Ligeti’s lesser-known works, and the BSO’s performance represented a rare concert opportunity to hear music that undoubtedly gets a bit lost in translation on the way to a home stereo or laptop speakers. By 1972, when Ligeti completed the score, he was adept at integrating a variety of techniques with the sound-mass processes he first explored in Atmospheres in 1960. I anticipated closing my eyes as a slowly evolving, microtonally-inflected haze crept through the hall. Unfortunately, what I witnessed instead was a churlish, even brutish display of disrespect by enough audience members that the transportive potential of the so-called “Ligeti effect” was completely thwarted.

As a contemporary composer and an admirer of almost all that Ligeti wrote, this was a profoundly disheartening, disturbing situation. Perhaps for those in attendance exclusively for the Classical and Romantic portions of the program, this work, and this category of Ligeti’s output — glacially paced chromatic counterpoint with an emphasis on timbre — is the least palatable of the composer’s oeuvre. However, this audience’s inability to sit quietly, and suspend its skepticism for less than fifteen minutes as a world-class guest conductor led the BSO through a masterwork of one of the post-war era’s most influential, revered composers, was disgraceful.

With the scaled-down orchestra (no violins) gradually transforming its timbre, shape and harmony at a dynamic level of ppp, like a cloud slowly drifting and changing shape on a windless afternoon, people throughout the hall, whispered, groaned, coughed, squeaked their boots, and banged against their seats. Four minutes into the piece, a woman two rows behind me snorted, “This music is disgusting!” A couple of minutes later, the woman sitting next to me noisily shook several wintergreen Tic Tacs into her hand and proceeded to suck on them audibly. Next, the man directly in front of me, after sighing disapprovingly several times, stood up, slammed his chair against its seat back, and practically stomped out of the hall!

It bears mentioning that Ligeti, who was born in 1923 and died in 2006, would be eighty-seven years old today, — not exactly an enfant terrible of the twenty-first century — and certainly older, if only by a decade or two, than most of these intolerant, closed-minded “protesters.”. Furthermore, of all his post-war, European peers, Ligeti, and particularly the “sound mass” portion of his canon, should be quite familiar to American audiences after the well-known use of his Requiem, Atmospheres and Lux Aesterna in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (to be noted: without the composer’s permission). The point is, this audience should have had some prior awareness of what they were going to hear.  This was not the premiere of an obscure, contemporary, radical conceptualist, and regardless of one’s opinion of a piece, destroying the listening experience for others in a concert is appalling and unacceptable, particularly from a crowd that doubtless fancies itself “cultured” and “refined.”

Predictably, the antics ceased for Mozart and Dvorák.

Violinist Arabella Steinbacher with Christoph von Dohnanyi (Stu-Rosner photo)

Though the bitter residue from the crowd’s reaction to Ligeti was fresh, it would be irresponsible to ignore the exhilarating virtuosity displayed by German violinist Arabella Steinbacher in her BSO debut, performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D. Dohnányi led the orchestra in blossoming dramatically through the striking dynamic contrasts which characterize the first movement. The chromaticism and rhythmic displacement of the second theme gives it a side-winding, serpentine quality.  This was accentuated lusciously by Dohnányi and Steinbacher’s subtle interpretations in this theme’s various guises throughout the ritornello and solo sections.

The highlights of the performance were Steinbacher’s remarkably inspired cadenzas in the first and second movement. The first movement cadenza was particularly noteworthy; the young violinist displayed extraordinary insight, skillfully contrasting patient, elegaic introspection with the fanfare-like jubilation of the movement’s opening phrase. The result was transcendent.

The second half of the program consisted solely of Dvorák’s Symphony No. 7. Completed and premiered in the Spring of 1885 (after a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society in London — the only commission the composer ever received), the work is heavily influenced by Brahms and represents the Dvorák’s most ambitious effort. During the work’s composition, he was stylistically conflicted. As Richard Freed wrote in his program notes to a performance by the National Symphony in 2009, Dvorák was unsure whether he should “proceed in the Czech national character with which his music had become so readily identified — and so enthusiastically accepted — or to adopt a more ‘international’ approach (which is to say, a German one) in a bid for the still broader level of recognition enjoyed by Brahms.”

Ultimately, Dvorák achieved a seamless integration of both, utilizing German Romantic form, harmony and processes of development with numerous infusions of the modality and character of the folk music of his native region. The predominant, defining characteristic though, is one of Brahmsian tragedy shot through at various turns with optimism, ambition, pastoralism, and triumph.

Dohnányi embodied the extremes of these passions completely.  The orchestra basked in the sublime, sweeping landscape of the woodwind-dominated Poco Adagio second movement. The third movement was spectacular, with Dohnányi punching through the off-kilter Scherzo, which brilliantly juxtaposes patterns of three against two, again reminiscent of Brahms and his rhythmic complexity. Indeed, as cited in the program notes to the performance, no less an authority than critic Donald Tovey placed this work alongside Brahms’s four symphonies as “among the greatest and purest examples of this art-form since Beethoven” (from Volume II of Tovey’s Essays in Music Analysis, 1935).

One of the most magical moments of the symphony is the mid-movement dissolution of the Scherzo’s intricate ferocity. After a complete stoppage on a tutti D in octaves, an almost rhythmically amorphous section marked Poco meno mosso emerges. If Ligeti’s indignant detractors had been listening closely, they might have heard a precursor to his Double Concerto’s deceptive nebulousness in this passage, amid the heavily articulated Romantic sophistication that surrounds it. By coincidence, as this segment emerges from an unharmonized D, the most dramatic points of arrival and departure in the first movement of Ligeti’s Double Concerto occur as sudden orchestral unisons. It seems for the greatest composers, the time-proven formal techniques of the past are never far out of mind.

Lastly, it would be neglectful to leave unmentioned the BSO’s trombones and horns, who filled the hall with a blinding, resonant effervescence during the fourth movement, elevating the symphony to an unforgettably epic climax and finale. It was glorious, and almost enough to alleviate my outrage over the unfortunate way in which the afternoon began.

David Dominique is a composer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.  He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

14 Comments

  1. David,

    “It bears mentioning that Ligeti, who was born in 1923 and died in 2006, would be eighty-seven years old today, — not exactly an enfant terrible of the twenty-first century — and certainly older, if only by a decade or two, than most of these intolerant, closed-minded “protesters.”….”

    So what? Why is the passage of time relevant here?

    Comment by Matthew — January 30, 2011 at 11:10 pm

  2. We were at the Sat. night performance and experienced the same thing. Quite a bit of coughing, sneezing, other noise, commotion and rudeness during the Ligeti. I’ll admit that the piece wasn’t my cup of tea, but it is embarrassing that we (as an audience) can’t at least do the orchestra (and the people who were enjoying the piece) the courtesy of remaining respectfully quiet for 15 minutes. Especially in support of Rowe’s and Ferrillo’s opportunity to stand in the limelight. Let me also reinforce the author above in his analysis of the rest of the evening. The Mozart and Ms Steinbacher were delightful; and the Dvorak was incredible!

    Comment by STW — January 31, 2011 at 1:09 am

  3. There is always coughing during the quiet passages since they cannot hold the attention of the philistines in the audience. I’ve often feared that BSO audiences are among the world’s worst for their inability to be engaged by quiet music.

    But it sounds as if the Friday ladies (and gentlemen) were even worse than the Thursday evening crowd, who were merely normally bad.

    Perhaps the solution is to give the serious programs only in the evenings, and present nothing but Mozart (without the slow movements) on Friday afternoons.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 31, 2011 at 2:17 am

  4. This is exactly why I have almost completely stopped going to concerts. I don’t have any interest in hearing Mozart, but Ligeti is the type of thing I’d go out for. Audiences are ruder and less attentive than ever. No yell phones ringing? At least that was a blessing. We still have Jordan Hall for audiences that (mostly) are there for the music and not just to be seen, or lulled by familiar and easy music.

    Comment by Klingsor — January 31, 2011 at 8:31 am

  5. A further thought: the placement of the Ligeti at the beginning of the program gave those who didn’t want to listen to it a chance to be “late” and take their seats only after it was finished. A futile courtesy, it seems.

    As for the music itself, the Double Concerto was certainly fascinating, and if it weren’t for the weather forecasts, I might well try to get a rush seat for tomorrow evening. The BSO podcast had prepared me for Ligeti’s nebulous sound. Regrettably, it was so quiet that it didn’t drown out the tinnitus in my right ear. But it was a piece that was pleasant to hear and seemed likely to reward a rehearing.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 31, 2011 at 12:48 pm

  6. In response to Matthew: I mentioned the dates of Ligeti’s life because I think it is relevant that this is the “music of the time” of most of the people who behaved so rudely. In 2011, music of this type should not have be as shocking as it may have been in the 1960s, or as the audience’s response suggested.

    Comment by David Dominique — January 31, 2011 at 5:03 pm

  7. We were at the Sat evening concert, and I really enjoyed the Ligeti Double concerto; esp the contrasts in tones and rhythms. The coughing in the audience was annoying, that was definitely more prominent during the Ligeti than the other pieces. I even joked that perhaps Ligeti wrote in “cough” in the score and BSO planted “musicians” in the audience to cough. Other than that, the audience just seemed restless but at least I didn’t hear any talking.

    Speaking of walking out of the concert, when we were at Jeremy Denk’s piano recital a week earlier, we saw a woman walked out of the Ligeti piano etudes after the first 2 were played.

    Comment by YuenK — January 31, 2011 at 10:53 pm

  8. We reap what we sow as a culture. As we become more acclimated toward a culture of sound bytes and over-stimulation, I think we will see an increased loss in attention span. I’ve heard music students groan because I expect them to listen to an ENTIRE string quartet…by Haydn, never mind Ligeti. I was sad that I could not be there to hear the Ligeti, but now I’m glad I didn’t go. My own attention would have been supplanted by festering anger at the audience.

    Comment by Rebecca — February 2, 2011 at 8:44 am

  9. My son, a college student musician/composer, and I went to Tuesday’s concert, the last in the series.
    His choice, because he wanted to hear the Ligeti. We knew about the swinish behavior of previous audiences and were prepared for the worst. We sat in Orchestra AA, and enjoyed a great evening.
    The audience was fine — no rustling, phones/gadgets, random chatting. Perhaps philistines are allergic to slush and stayed home. Maybe some read the above comments and took them to heart.

    Comment by Elizabeth F — February 2, 2011 at 9:59 am

  10. Last night’s performance of this concert, the last in this series, was sparsely attended, but the largely plaid flannel and blue jeans-clad audience seemed absorbed in the haunting, gripping Ligeti. As embracing as I found the work, I was disappointed that this opportunity to showcase the versatility, suppleness and simply astonishing playing that both John Ferillo and Elizabeth Rowe produce was spent on this work. I was looking forward to hearing them, but their parts were largely absorbed by the dense texture of the piece. Maybe that is why your reviewer did not mention their names. Their understated roles aside, the work’s overall atmosphere could be taken as a whole ambiance, or wonderfully parsed to hear the fine parts that created such a thick impression.

    On the audience: The young (20’s?), mixed race couple behind me were chatting before the concert and the man (apparently new to classical music concerts) said he was worried he would clap in the wrong places. The woman pointed out the program page with movements he could track. After the Ligeti he commented it was “quiet,” and that he didn’t really follow it, but it wasn’t “bad.” I took that to mean it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. Later he commented on the way in which the orchestra warmed up on stage, the tuning, and that von Dohnanyi conducted the Dvorak without a score. All of this struck me as marvelous first-concert experience chit chat, with an assumed respect for the musicians and openness to a work that is unfamiliar to many non-composer and non-musician ears (mine included there).

    I find reviews of works with which I am unfamiliar to be helpful even after the experience. They leave me ready to hear more next time around. Spending much of a review reviewing audience bad behavior may not encourage future audiences to come at all.

    Comment by Mary Saudek Jaffee — February 2, 2011 at 10:16 am

  11. Sorry that I missed my Tuesday BSO concert because of being unwilling to brave the elements.
    I always find Ligeti fascinating (often repeated hearings help).
    The rude behavior of audiences which seems to be increasing exponentially is inexcusible! Coughing. fidgeting etc. always marks an audience’s discontent with a “modern” piece. Back 1n the late ’50’s early ’60’s audiences were far more polite re: showing, boredom etc… Displeasure was shown by restrained applause. Consideration was shown to other audience members who were interested in the work being performed!
    The sound of people “dropping” the notoriously noisy seats has reached epidemic proportions… this is occcuring constantly throughout the performance! What is going on! It’s enough to make one stay home!

    Comment by Ed Burke — February 2, 2011 at 7:54 pm

  12. I’m not so sure that the coughing and seat-dropping are signs of displeasure with “modern” music. It has seemed to me that it happens in all kinds of music during the quiet parts. On Thursday, there was coughing during Ms. Steinbacher’s cadenzas, as there always is during slow passages of any kind of music; and seats are dropped during the pre-concert lecture as well. It just occurs to me: the new padding on the seats is thicker than what used to be there. This makes them tilt back a little less than they used to when in the upright position, which makes it easier to dislodge them inadvertently with a slight touch of the arm — the distance they have to be pushed to fall is less than it used to be.

    Both coughing and seat-dropping are annoying, but I’m not so sure they are deliberate. Maybe the BSO could help by putting foam dampers on the undersides of the seats. Of course talking is inexcusable.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 3, 2011 at 2:07 am

  13. On Friday afternoon from second-balcony left, the concentrated listening by young and old alike was impressive. I appreciate the reviewer’s frustrations, but Friday afternoon on the floor (I presume) has always been the worst time and place to hear the BSO perform contemporary music. It’s too bad the reviewer spent SO much time commenting on the audience’s behavior: I was a reviewer myself for 15 years at The Jewish Advocate, and this sort of thing, unpleasant as it is, comes with the territory and merits only a single stern sentence. The performance of the Dvorak was, far and away, the best BSO has delivered in standard repertory this year and ranks highly in a compilation of same in the last 20 years. It wasn’t merely good, or very good. For “homers” like me, it took the sting–finally–out of the Pats’ dismal loss to the Jets.

    Comment by Dan Farber — February 4, 2011 at 2:10 pm

  14. Friday evening I went to see the play, “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” and a very fine play it was. About halfway through there was a scene in which the actor had to cough several times. As soon as he coughed for the first time, a member of the audience also coughed, and several others followed suit. Every subsequent cough from the stage found an echo from the audience.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 5, 2011 at 7:33 pm

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